Year Two!

I made the decision to return to Totus Tuus very shortly after the close of my last summer. Essentially, I told Jesus, “I am going to do Totus Tuus again unless you put something VERY appealing in front of me as an alternative and if You do You’d better make it VERY obvious.” Now, I would not suggest telling God your plans in such a stubborn way. It really doesn’t usually work out. But in this case, I was lucky enough to ask for what He had already planned on giving me.

Being a “returner” does not come without anxieties. But it does come with a whole summer of experiencing God’s graces in all imaginable situations; a summer from which I can draw confidence in His goodness and love for us and everyone we serve.

In the past two weeks I have been reminded by Him of the beautiful surprise I had at the end of last summer when reflecting on the depth of my relationships with each of my teammates. Who knew that humans were capable of loving so deeply after only two months? Definitely not me. As week one of teaching draws to a close, I look forward to every adventure and to the moment of reflection in late July where I will marvel at God’s goodness in putting us together.

I continue to be amazed at the graces that have and will come from God and the intercession of Saint Pope John Paul the Second, as I again find myself on the team under his specific patronage. On my pilgrimage to Rome in March I was able to pray at JPII’s grave. I thanked him for his intercession last summer and asked him to again intercede for the program this summer. I actively dismissed the dream of being on Team JPII for a second year. But as my former teammate said when I was telling him stories about Rome, “JPII just isn’t done with you yet.” And neither is God.

From the Hurting Heart of a Middle School Religious Ed. Teacher

The past two weeks my sixth graders have completely stunned me and my co-teacher, Claire, with their honesty and vulnerability. Most of my kids are twelve years old, but they are thinking and worrying about things that are so much bigger than them. There are two separate issues that came up on two separate nights. The second one I will save for a separate post.

Two weeks ago we were talking about healing. We started with superheroes and moved on to the ultimate superhero – Jesus. Our main activity was to have each group write a song about what needs healed in our society with one group focusing on Nebraska, one on the US, and one on the world. Before they started we asked them for suggestions to get the gears turning. The first thing any of them brought up was suicide. I cannot write the look on this little twelve-year-old girl’s face when a few seconds of thought produced this idea. In that moment I saw my own heart break reflect in Claire’s eyes as well. Do not mistake me, they are twelve and there were a few who made jokes, but a majority of our class had hurt in their eyes.

I know the Church’s teaching on suicide and I feel that this is a good time to share it. The Catechism (2280-2282) emphasizes that it is contrary to natural inclination to live and is not in the spirit of thanksgiving, as our lives are a gift from God. However, “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). It goes on to emphasize that we are not God and therefore cannot determine whether or not a suicide victim is or is not worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This topic is something that came up frequently when we did our question box for the high schoolers during Totus Tuus. But how do I explain that to twelve year olds? How am I to go about doing anything other than comforting them and reaffirming the value of life when some are sad and some crack jokes? On reflection we realized that we could have handled it better than we did and that too breaks my heart.

When the kids brought it up, all we really did was confirm that suicide is a problem in our community and that it is an incredibly difficult and painful situation. I honestly don’t remember saying much more than that. As soon as we sent them home for the night, Claire and I expressed to each other how surprised we were that they had started that conversation. We realized immediately that we should probably have temporarily de-railed the lesson to address their concerns. We did not explain to them what the Church teaches on the matter, maybe directed at a stray comment from one of the students but definitely not with the attention of the whole class. We also realized right away that we had missed our opportunity. I feel fairly confident that if we tried to bring it up now, they would all be shut down to the conversation.

Suicide is hard to talk about with twelve year olds. I did not handle the situation the way that I would want to, looking at it in retrospect. However, in the most positive and Christ-centered view of things that I can find, I have to trust that what Claire and I said was appropriate to our classroom, that in those few moments the Holy Spirit spoke through us. Out of all this worry and sadness of our failures, that is my prayer.

In the weeks since I felt moved to make arrangements for their concerns to be addressed and their questions answered. The Director of Religious Education (DRE) is currently attempting to arrange for the parish priest to come in and speak to the kids, something that Claire and I are looking forward to so that our students may be set at some ease. Feel free to comment about how you would have handled the situation or suggestions for how I and other Religious Educators might seek to go about it in the future.

Top 10 Reasons to Teach Totus Tuus

There are a lot more than ten reasons, I promise! But sadly I’m writing a blog post and not a novel so I had to limit myself.

After number one they are in no particular order!

  1. Jesus – Liturgy of the Hours, daily rosaries, daily Divine Mercy Chaplets, and DAILY MASS. That doesn’t even include all the ways that you experience Him though other people and the world around you. The prayer life of a Totus Tuus summer is what I dream of during the school year. It takes a lot of discipline and accountability that many of us fail to find in the midst of academic and career stress. But I am happily still swimming in all of those summer graces.
  2. Other teachers –Building friendships on the basis of Christ Himself is incredibly powerful. Those ten days of training are more than enough to build bonds that last a lifetime. And that may sound cheesy, but I swear to you it is true. No friendships are stronger than those build around faith in Christ. Whenever I make plans to meet up with one of my fellow teachers I am overcome with a happiness that permeates my heart and soul. This heart and soul happiness is because I know that I will not only encounter them, but will encounter Christ living and thriving in them.
  3. Your team – When you spend all day every day with the same people, you walk away a family. My team showed me how to be myself, my true, goofy, shy self that doesn’t shut up once she opens up to you. They challenged me in my faith by the beautiful examples I saw in each of them day-in and day-out. They trusted and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Your team shows you how to live out love in a new way, on good days and bad days and all the days in between.
  4. First through sixth graders – I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the day program; I am a secondary education major, after all. I was nervous for this program but there was no reason to be. The younger ones say the darnedest thing and the older ones have questions galore. Every class period was a surprise. Oh, and they have the biggest hearts.
  1. Middle and high schoolers – This is where the connections are made. It doesn’t happen often, but students open up to you about their prayer lives and struggles and their vulnerability can be very inspiring. The curriculum is also more laid back for them than for the little kids. It is mostly about sharing personal faith stories and developing fellowship, although we pray together as well.
  2. Princess Palace and Knights Court – The phrase “daughter of God” used to make me flinch. I knew it but I struggled to believe it of myself. Every day between Mass and lunch, Sydney and I took the 1-6th grade girls and Jon and James took the boys. The girls learned about how to act like a daughter of God our King and Mary our Queen. The boys learned how to be gentlemen and how they should treat the ladies. At the end of the week, the girls are crowned and the boys are knighted. After each crowning my heart was a little more open to the idea. It was a little easier to have faith “like a child.” I truly cannot put into words the looks that some girls gave us at the crowning. It was a joy that could be rooted only in their soul. (That is to say, it’s a joy very different than the “we’re going to Disney” type of joy.) And when one of my sixth graders objected that someone had to crown me? Yeah, my heart melted and I crouched down so she could reach me.
  3. The families – Every night we had supper with a different family from the parish. Some were awkward. But oh my did we get a beautiful view of family life for that one hour! Younger kids show us their toys. Parents with kids out of the house take time to point out all the family photos and tell us the cool things their kids are up to. Older students show off their hobbies and musical talents. It is always an adventure. Their love is so incredibly evident; not only their love for each other, but also their love for us and what we do, for the complete strangers that they welcome and feed out of the kindness of their hearts.
  4. Silly songs – Yes, this really is a positive! If you can stand up and direct 30-60 kids in the banana song while parents and older siblings come in and (every once in a while) pull out their phones, then you can do anything.
  5. Vulnerability – I know that this is a scary word. Trust me. I know. But there is no safer environment than your team to practice living it. And if you can turn around and share your story with middle and high school students, who are so grateful to have an example, then how could it not be easier to share with those who know and love you? Notice that I did not say that it becomes easy. Only easier. It is definitely a journey but while you’re teaching Totus Tuus you have to speed walk down this road instead of shuffling your feet. It is a beautiful challenge.
  6. Team Date Day/Team Adventure – Our Date Day was Tuesday, called JP-Twosdays after our team patron. Every Tuesday we would use our free time in the afternoon to go on adventures. Sometimes this just meant getting ice cream and trying to leave behind the Totus Tuus talk for an hour. Sometimes this meant adventuring a few towns over, like the week we went to the smallest town in the state of Nebraska (Monowi, Population 1). Team Adventures included trips to Iowa ( . . . ew.), South Dakota, and, for James and I, our first ever rodeo.

As you can tell, there are a lot of ways to grow during Totus Tuus and they are by no means easy. But nothing in a Totus Tuus summer is unrewarding. There are abundant graces and so many different ways to change your own relationship with Christ and to inspire and help others do the same. As someone said at our end of the year retreat, “Totus Tuus is a lifestyle.” If you are at all present spiritually then a summer of Totus Tuus affects a lot more than just that one summer. It makes changes your relationship with Christ, it changes how you see yourself as His daughter or son, and it results in a lifelong desire to live Totus Tuus.

Our Confirmation Saints Choose Us

Let me set the stage: winter 2009; a small, drafty little Catholic school; an eighth grade Confirmation class of fifteen students – ten boys and five girls. Middle school girls can be vicious and it is time to pick confirmation saints.

It didn’t take long for us to start fighting over the saints with beautiful names. We were 13. I don’t even remember which one specifically (Cecelia maybe?), but there was one point where three of us had our hearts set on the exact same saint. Now I must confess another detail that has been consigned to the fuzzy oblivion of old memories: I have no idea why we couldn’t have the same name. Was it our teacher’s rule? Was it our own pride and desire to be unique? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. But either way, there was a while there when confirmation saints were a far-too-sensitive topic for us.

If you know me, you know that I do not handle hostility well . . . or at all, really. So I was probably the first to get the heck out of that fight. I did more research (our choice was accompanied by a written report) and found St. Margaret. At this point, thirteen-year-old me is still set on a beautiful name, preferably one that I’m not going to have to fight for, and gosh darn it I had found one!

Now is a good time for me to remind you of the title of this post. St. Margaret is great, but she did not choose me. Being a private school, the planners they ordered for us had feast days and Church fun facts sprinkled throughout. One day, before we had made the final decision on our saints, I flipped forward to January 21st, my birthday. In all honesty I was probably going to doodle fun birthday hats and cake and whatnot on that part of the page, as if I needed the reminder. Instead, what I found was that my birthday was a feast day for a female saint! The planner had maybe a sentence in it that told me she was thirteen (my age at the time) when she was martyred and that she was the patron saint of all girls. At the time, however, I did not think that she had a very pretty name: Saint Agnes of Rome.

Thankfully, I set the quest for a “beautiful” name aside for a little while to do my research. Saint Agnes lived in the fourth century in Rome, when it was illegal to be a Christian. She was known for her beauty and died to preserve her virginity; she had promised her life to Christ. There are lots of other details, depending on which accounts you trust. Unfortunately, accounts on early martyrs can vary greatly.

I fell in love with Agnes’ story and slowly, over the years, have fallen in love with her name, which I now know is Latin for “lamb.” I still have not figured out exactly why Agnes chose me, but I have loved sharing my day with her and so many other girls.

In the midst of learning to love her more and ask more frequently for her intercession, God threw me a little surprise via Totus Tuus. Shortly after we were assigned our teams, we had time to be alone, just the four of us, and get to know each other. I love to ask other Catholics the story behind their saints; it’s fun to know and I like to share my own story. So in the dark of a car ride back to the retreat center, I pose this question to my team. In my excitement I decide to answer first. I tell them about fighting with my classmates and about Margaret, then I say that my saint is Saint Agnes of Rome and that her feast day is my birthday. The second I finish my story my teammate Sydney says, “your birthday is January 21st!” Now up until this point I could tell, even in the darkness of the highway, that she was looking at me funny. I was just too caught up in my story to think too much about it. She quickly followed up her interjection with an explanation: “we have the same Confirmation saint!” All of this transpired in a matter of seconds and was followed by some excited probably-near-screaming that the boys may not have appreciated very much.

Throughout the summer, we checked every church we visited for statues and stained glass windows with Saint Agnes. And of course, each statue called for another selfie of St. Agnes and the girls of team St. Pope John Paul II.me-syd-and-agnes

I still don’t think I know why, exactly, St. Agnes chose me. But I do know that she has certainly spoiled me and I’m so grateful to have her by my side as a friend and intercessor.

Being the Light of the World

Early last week, I was not being “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). I was tired and crabby. I was homesick. I was annoyed by (almost) literally every little thing that the people around me did, from tapping feet to a stray bit of garbage that just missed the trash. And every day seemed to be giving me reasons to declare it to be “just not my day.” As all of this negativity piled up I blamed it on my homesickness and contented myself with being that annoyed until I got home on Friday evening.

Wednesday night threw me a much needed chance to turn it all around.

I have a pretty regular schedule for when I go to confession. However, I had let that slip recently – and of course I had an excuse for myself regarding it. I knew that it was time to actually plan and go to confession before our community Mass. So I went.

After my reversion, which I talked about in my last post, I had a lot of emotional confessions. I was consistently a crier. I continued to find myself absolutely floored by the power and love of the sacrament. I was truly amazed. I slowly started to transfer from confessions out of fear to confessions out of love. And as I look back at this slow progression, I can only pause in wonder at the love and grace involved in every moment and marvel at what may come. Crying during confession is a beautiful grace received through tears of remorse and more importantly through tears of love.

This week I received a new kind of confessional grace. For the first time that I can remember, I walked out with a huge, genuine smile. My soul was as clean in that moment as it was at the moment of my baptism; my friends and I even like to refer to our souls as “baby souls” in the first few hours after receiving absolution. As I walked out of the confessional and back to my seat I was overwhelmed by the joy resulting from God’s perfect love for me and my imperfect love for him.

The rest of my week was so indescribably different. Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of instances that could have resulted in the declaration of “it’s just not my day” ringing through my mind and off my lips. The difference was that I had a renewed realization of the temporary nature of those stressors.

I was able to be as Jesus tells us we are to be in today’s Gospel reading, “you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. . . In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 14, 16). We cannot be the light of the world when our own hearts are dark.

I’m sure I will not be the first or last to remind you how dark our times are. Many people see Christians by stereotypes that should never be synonymous with our beliefs. But we do not have to prove them right. We should be fighting sin and temptation every day so that we may be cities built on hillsides. We should be praying to be given the grace to lead a lifestyle that not only lets others know our God by the way we live, but also shows them that we can genuinely love others regardless of our differences and disagreements. The light we are to shine is not our own so we cannot let it shine on our own. We must be constantly going to the source, that we may be a reflection of Him and His love. In Christ, the impossible is made possible.

Claiming my Story as a Cradle Catholic

I am a cradle Catholic (which I suppose you surmised from the title of this post). I see people on twitter and other social media outlets that joke about the cradle Catholic experience being generic. I have a problem with that. Are most cradle Catholic stories similar at one point or another? Yes. Does that mean that God put less thought or care into those stories? Or that they are not worth sharing? Absolutely not. So to help you all get to know me –my experiences, my soul, etc. – my vulnerability starts with the story that is uniquely mine from my Father.

From Kindergarten through eighth grade I attended a small private school. Growing up, Mass was a regular part of the routine for my family – me, my little brother Nolan, my Dad, and even my Mom, who is not Catholic. Since we went to the private school at our parish, Nolan and I never had to go to CCD. We took a Religion class during the day and hung out with the Brothers (I don’t remember which order) and the LIHM Sisters every once in a while. Our education was a foundation but it was not a shelter.

By the time I got confirmed in eighth grade, at the age of fourteen, I thought that I knew everything. Which is strange since it’s soooo unlike middle schoolers to be so cocky, right? Any who, I transferred to public for high school. I went from a class of 15 Catholics I had known basically my whole life to a class of 300+, almost all of whom were complete strangers and very few of whom were Catholic. In two words: culture shock.

Freshman year is a giant blur faith wise. I still went to Mass but I don’t remember doing much else. Fall of my sophomore year, however, is very clear. I had several friends from middle school who had been home schooled for multiple years but we kept in touch. That fall, they started inviting me to the youth group that they attended in Sioux City at the Cathedral of the Epiphany. After a lot of saying “no,” I got really annoyed; they just wouldn’t stop asking! Eventually I had a thought that was almost exactly as follows: “if I say yes, go once, and say I didn’t like it then maybe . . . maybe they’ll leave me alone.” *Cue sneaky smile* because fifteen-year-old Michelle thinks she’s getting away with something. (Hint: she was wrong.) So I feigned excitement and went to my first youth group in October of 2011.

That first night, I actually didn’t have fun. Looking back, I would say it’s a safe bet that my heart was just too closed off to what was going on. But as we waited for our parents to pick us up, we talked about the night. . . Well, they talked about it; I was afraid to tell them I didn’t like it. They wouldn’t stop telling me how excited they were that I had come. To make matters worse, I could see the excitement in their eyes – I knew their happiness was the real deal. Then they asked the million-dollar question: “will you come again next week?” And somehow I found myself saying yes. I continued the “one more week” mentality for about a month before I admitted to myself that I actually wanted to be there, that I was actually becoming part of that community.

In February of 2012 I attended my first retreat. Before we went home at the end, my friend invited me to join the Teen Leaders. She grabbed my arm and we ran over to the youth group leader, who enthusiastically reiterated my friend’s invitation and told me the meeting information.

The people that I met in youth group became my second family and got me through high school. I do not talk to most of them anymore, but I love each of them and cherish them in my heart and prayers. They taught me what it means to have a relationship with Christ. They taught me how to find deeper friendships with other Catholics – a lesson that was critical for my college experience, but that’s a whole other story. They showed me that the Church is young and full of life. I credit every person that I encountered at the Cathedral youth group with helping me not only stay Catholic, but to grow in my relationship with Christ and in my faith.